Sunday, January 31, 2010

I Remember a Gift

Following is an expanded version of this vingette, an earlier copy of which was posted on this site a couple of years ago. This version was published in the January 2010 edition of the Foreign Service Journal.

I remember a gift. In 1986 as deputy director in the Office of East African Affairs. I was making a tour of U.S. embassies in the parish. I was in Djibouti, a small desert country at the southern mouth of the Red Sea. Neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia, then at relative peace, had been warring for years. That conflict had been compounded by drought and famine. As a result many thousands of ethnic Somali tribesmen from the Ogaden Region of Ethiopia had sought refuge in Djibouti. They were confined to United Nations run camps located in the arid hinterland of one of the most desolate nations in Africa.

A dusty, hot half-day’s drive from the capital, I visited one of the camps, which grouped several thousand refugees who had lived there for months; essentially on a moonscape. This refugee camp was a bleak and seemingly hopeless place. Yet, the elders of the camp committee greeted me graciously and guided me on a tour of their squalid domain. We wove in and out little lanes between the stick huts. Green plastic sheeting provided cover from the sun. Bags of U.S. donated maize and tins of vegetable oil were stacked in the food distribution warehouse. A one-tent school was operating. It had little more than a blackboard, but children sat in rapt attention as their teacher lectured, then they recited back. Outside the small clinic the day’s clients – pregnant women, wailing babies and those worn with the ills of the region - waited patiently. Inside, several refugee nurses dispensed what care they could. They proudly proclaimed that childhood immunizations were up to date. Flies buzzed incessantly.

Elders bemoaned their plight: their suffering from war and famine, their flight from their homes, especially their loss of goats and camels. They noted youths were bored in the nothingness of the camp and all were stymied by the inability to look ahead. They were compelled to live day-by-day. Of course, they asked for America’s help, especially in rectifying conditions in Ethiopia so that they might be able to go home.

However, the camp committee was most anxious that I see their newly acquired well, water pump – provided by a grant from the U.S. government - and garden. We walked up a rock-strewn ravine past the cemetery where several new graves provided mute testimony to the ravages of disease and malnutrition. Beyond, nestled on the slope of the valley in a region where not a single blade of vegetation was visible for miles, was a small patch of green. The elders showed me how boys carried water from the new well to the plots where they had managed to coax several scraggly tomato plants and other vegetables from the hard earth. The chief pointed with pride to the first water melon, about the size of a small soccer ball. He then had it picked. He presented it to me with great ceremony and thanks for America’s concern and assistance. I was overwhelmed. The camp’s children were desperate for this sort of nourishment, yet it was given unhesitating to a stranger – to someone who obviously had no need for it. Yet, I had to accept. This was a gift from the heart. I managed to utter thanks and a few words of encouragement. We then shared the bits of melon.

In the years since, I have always been struck how people with so little and with such great needs could give so easily. Yet we with so much, find it hard to give a little.

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